The crown that Roy Emerson wears as the best amateur tennis player in the world becomes him and the game. It is never rakishly tilted or garishly illuminated, and it is tarnished only because, as Emerson himself frankly says, "there is no such thing as amateur tennis." No matter. What is tendered as amateur tennis is still there, an entity, and Roy Emerson is the king of it.
"There is this about Emerson first," says Pancho Contreras, the Mexico Davis Cup captain. "He is always a winner. He has won them all—Wimbledon, Forest Hills, the Davis Cup. But he wins in the Caribbean, too—Trinidad, Barranquilla. He wins in Europe. He wins the little ones. He just wins."
Emerson's consistency is amazing. At one stretch in 1961-62, he played in the finals of 19 consecutive tournaments. He won at Wimbledon last July on his ninth try, thus succeeding to virtually every title of even casual significance—singles and doubles—in the world. Today he is at his peak, and there seems little reason to doubt that he will again win the U.S. nationals, which began this week at Forest Hills.
Yet among his fellow tournament players Emerson is not viewed with abject awe. He is given hardly more than the modest commendation that is due any man who is so obviously the champion. He is regarded as sort of an old shoe who just happened into the world's championship—or, more appropriately, inherited it. No one ever dares propose that any other leading amateur—McKinley, Santana, Ralston, Osuna—is a consistent threat to Emerson, but no one will suggest, either, that Emerson is anything special, as No. 1 players go.
There are a lot of reasons for this attitude, not the least of which is that, as amateurs go, Emerson is an old shoe. Suffering from a chronic love affair with tennis and all its environs, Emerson can only plead guilty to the charge of amateur longevity and an overexposure that would ruin the best of TV comedians.
A member of the Australian Davis Cup team since he was 17, Emerson was winning big matches in the U.S. as long ago as 1954. Yet he was never terribly spectacular, and he simply emerged, moving up as the other Australians matriculated into the shadowy world of professionalism. When Rod Laver won the 1962 Grand Slam and then accepted $110,000 to turn pro, Emerson was left as the undisputed amateur king.
A notably uncomplicated person, Emerson does not delude himself. "I was lucky—all the others turning pro and all the Davis Cup play I had. But I know how good I am. You should know how good you are. There really is very little difference between No. 1 and No. 2 and even No. 20."
As a matter of fact, Emerson did a little more than fall to the top. He was ranked No. 1 ahead of Laver the year before the Grand Slam, and the first time Laver got a pro offer it was as part of a $30,000 package with Emerson. ( Emerson's latest offer last winter was $50,000 for just himself.) But Emerson will never be the gate attraction pro tennis needs, for his game is not slashing and romantic but coolly efficient. He hits almost every shot hard, but his serve is only very good, compared to the serves of the other top players; he is one of the fastest players in the game, but he is so smooth and big (6 feet, 170) that he never comes off as one of the crowd-pleasing little scramblers. Often tactically naive and with no real finesse at all, Emerson wins by wearing his opponents down and leading them into mistakes.
He exudes dispatch. "Sometimes he works so fast, he looks like a blur across the net," Dennis Ralston says. "He is an IBM," adds Rafael Osuna. Emerson hardly ever changes his game and seldom even bothers with strategy. "Just play your bloody best," he says. "If you can't do it, you can't."
Not surprisingly, then, the consensus is that the only way to beat Emerson is to pressure him from the start and hope that somehow—if only mentally—he will falter. It happens rarely, but when it does it can be complete. In the French championships in May, Nicola Pietrangeli of Italy routed Emerson 6-1, 6-3, 6-3. That loss ruined Emerson's chances for a 1964 Grand Slam.